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UK Schools the Morning After: A Year and a Half After Government Cuts, Part I

I spent four days wandering around last month’s massive BETT conference in London. In many senses, BETT is the world’s largest K-12 educational technology expo. (It’s called educational ICT in the UK, and much of the non-U.S. world, for information and communications technology.) Started 27 years ago with a domestic focus to help bootstrap UK schools and teachers into 21st century learning, it’s since become increasingly international. In May of 2010, the UK’s new Conservative-Liberal coalition government shook up both the nation’s schools and educational resources industry by dismantling the Blair/Labor administration’s long-standing support for educational technology. Given what’s happened to UK schools, the majority of which get almost all their funding from the Ministry of Education, the atmosphere was surprisingly upbeat. There are intriguing parallels between the UK’s new situation and policy movements here in the U.S., including an explosion in their equivalent of charter schools, removal of earmarks for funding going to schools (so they can spend it as they see fit), and a devolution of spending power back down to the building level. From my perspective, the UK experience offers an advance view of what we might be experiencing here over the next couple of years. This first of a two-article series details the changes in the school market a year and a half into the new regime. The second article, to appear next month, looks at how some UK firms are responding to the changes. Life is very different but not all bad. Read on to see if you agree.

Rough Going for the ICT Community

(BETT has been held for years at London’s Olympia Exhibition Center, a massive, charming old set of buildings first opened in 1886, around the same time as the Eiffel Tower, and have similar iron work. Olympia is way past its prime, with awkward booth platforms for electrical wiring; basically dysfunctional WiFi (a serious handicap for exhibitors and attendees); and a crazy quilt of booths, on two levels in two buildings, that makes finding anything a real challenge. Next year the show finally moves to a brand-new “purpose-built” exhibition center, ExCeL, on the other side of London.)

In short order following the installation of David Cameron as Prime Minister, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), the agency shepherding much of ICT for schools, was disbanded and all “ring-fenced” (i.e., specially earmarked) funding for technology was eliminated. According to Roger Broadie, Director, Broadie Associates Ltd., “The biggest hit was the retrospective cancellation of £100 million (approximately $157 million) of the 2010/2011 Harnessing Technology Grant. Many Local Authorities (LAs, roughly equivalent to U.S. school districts) had already committed to spending these funds, much of it to employ the staff of their ICT support centers. The majority of these tech support folks have been let go over the past 18 months, a process which is continuing as LAs have also been forced to cut spending drastically across the board because of the overall UK deficit.” The Harnessing Technology Grant was a three-year program, running from 2008-2011 to provide £639 million (approximately $1 billion) for schools and LAs to fund some of the capital costs of specific parts of educational ICT. Funds were allocated to LAs via formula, each of which was allowed to retain 25%, to fund central costs, such as broadband provision, while 75% was sent on to schools.

The government’s national Building Schools of the Future (BSF) program was also cancelled. Here again, some schools had already made ICT commitments under the program. For example, Ray Barker, Director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), sponsors of BETT, told me some schools bought laptops but “now need money to fix the roof so they have to refigure their budgets. Despite being hospitable to ICT expenditures, BSF was often limiting from the ICT point of view, as it locked schools into managed services with five- or ten-year contracts and tended to favor ‘big companies’ so the smaller, innovative companies couldn’t access this large market. These contracts tended to supply ‘old’ systems, such as desktops or laptop carts, rather than individual devices for pupils.” His is an argument to say that as a result, a large number of schools in BSF have lost a lot of flexibility over their ICT.

All of this has created an atmosphere of austerity for school administrators. Due to union agreements, it’s very difficult to get rid of teaching staff, so schools are cutting “resources,” such as teacher assistants and support staff. The government plans to make firing staff easier, but in the meantime, this has been devastating for many LA ICT support staff. The National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE), which describes itself as “the ICT association… a community of educators, technologists, and policymakers who share a vision for the role of technology in advancing education,” has seen many of its members let go from their LA and school positions. In response, the more enterprising of these folks have launched consulting careers, seeking contract work with their former LAs and schools. Consequently, NAACE’s role is changing to more of an organization of consultants.

Ray Barker added further detail about these changes at an SIIA BETT breakfast, on January 12, to a packed room of vendors. “The new administration initiated a wide review of government education policy, spanning nursery school to further education (students aged 16 years). Decisions may be made this year (2012), but new curriculum and materials may not be required until September 2014, with specifications out September 2013.” This has created a level of uncertainty for publishers and schools unprecedented in recent decades. Consequently, schools have, by and large, stopped buying these and many other materials. Recent estimates are that £1.2 billion (approximately $1.9 billion) of government funding is left in schools’ accounts, but they’re hoarding it for now and not sure how to spend it.

Barker observed that “the biggest area of current growth is the ‘refurbishment market’ (e.g., furniture) since such purchases don’t depend on curricula. The only exception is for ICT, where opportunities for new computer science materials have been created, but it’s not yet clear how fast schools will move to change their ICT teaching. However, as a result of this uncertainty, curricular print and software sales have really suffered. The market is still OK for assessment software, tools free of content, and platforms. As a result of Blair initiatives, most schools already have platforms through LA contracts, and in the schools inclined to consider a new one, changing is a slow process in a very competitive market.”

The UK has had a national curriculum since 1988. It now includes an ICT literacy curriculum but at BETT Michael Andrew Gove,UK Secretary of State for Education, announced that the national ICT curriculum is now dropped, and it’s up to schools to decide how to teach it. He’s raised the profile for teaching computer skills, he said, due to their importance for the future. The old curriculum, focused on teaching basic skills like cut/paste, was seen as boring and devoted to skills that may be obsolete in a few years. Instead he wants teaching of higher-order ICT thinking skills, such as coding strategies, as more of an academic subject.

Roger Broadie explained why the UK ICT market hasn’t ground to a halt. “There’re two kinds of schools, those that ‘get it’ about the value of ICT and those that don’t. Those committed to technology are not going back now.” Under the new government regime, schools can prioritize from their overall budgets, but there’s also new ring-fenced funding to support very disadvantaged pupils. Called the “pupil premium,” schools get an extra £430/student (about $684) for each disadvantaged student, identified by free school meals eligibility (much like our own Title I funding). There are no formal specs on how to use it. Consequently, some schools in poor areas are considerably better off in terms of their funding than previously. Schools can use pupil premium funds for general ICT spending if this helps those pupils.

On top of all this, the coalition has created a favorable environment for converting government-funded schools into “academies” and other Free Schools . The new academies, in many ways like our charter schools, can opt out of requirements set for other government-funded schools, set their own curriculum and pay scales, and are totally free to buy as they will. Some academies are accused of stealing staff from regular government schools. Parents seem to want their kids to go to the academies. In the short period since these became possible, a surprisingly high number, over 1,000 local schools, have opted out of the old system to become academies. Academies don’t get the free help that was previously available from their LAs (e.g., special needs support, assistance with building and other capital programs, etc.). Academy student selection is required to be non-selective so any student has an equal opportunity to attend. Reflecting the attitude of some skeptics, Roger Broadie commented, “If you believe the rhetoric, many academies are thought to covertly select students.” He added, “It’s the good schools that have become academies so far. Many see the next stage as the government forcing schools with poor results to become academies. One mechanism would be raising the OFSTED ‘floor targets’ with schools not reaching these being forced out of LA control. (OFSTED is the UK’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, responsible for inspecting and regulating school and other services.) According to a recent TES (Times Education Supplement) article from last June, “More than 5,300 schools with below-average test results will be failed by OFSTED from next year, unless they can show they’re ‘closing the gap,’ confidential documents reveal.” Yet many observers note it’s very far from clear how these schools, transformed to academies, will be helped to progress.

The buying habits of academies are just evolving. The government is encouraging buying in consortia. UK education businesses haven’t yet figured out to find and market to them. Unlike the previous routine of selling bigger ticket items and large packages to LAs, selling to academies is much more of a building-level affair (though there are a few relatively small academy chains and groups). RayBarker said, “In the old days, teachers would tell companies what they want; now companies have to be pro-active about what they’ve got and why schools need it.”

It’s Not the End of the World

After my four days at BETT, I came away feeling that school buyers and vendors both are cautiously optimistic about the future, a favorable change of sentiment from last year’s event. Being at BETT, where the number of attendees, over 30,300, set a new show record, and some 650 exhibitors participated, slightly down from last year but more international, was personally energizing. I heard the same from many of the exhibitors. To understand how publishers are coping with the new UK market environment, I spoke in depth with senior executives of two of them, Chris Bradford, COO of BrainPOP UK, and Julie Kilcoyne, Co-Founder and Joint-CEO of Boardworks, both of whom are also involved in the U.S. market. I’ll share what I learned from them and others in next month’s column.

You’ll be reading more in this column about what’s happening internationally over the coming months because the globalization of education is becoming an increasingly important market driver. For those who want a deeper dive than these columns offer, save the date of June 3, 2012, for the new CIC International Day/Education Marketing Forum, which I’ll be chairing, preceding the AEP/AAP Content in Context Conference in Washington, D.C.. I’m happy to hear from you about your own related experiences and questions at nelson@hellerresults.com.